Australian distance runner Ron Clarke (Getty Images) © Copyright

1965: rolling thunder from Down Under

The times were changing in the 1960s. Most radically in 1968, described in one commemorative piece as “the year that changed history”.

The article declared 1968 to have been “a year of seismic social and political change across the globe. From the burgeoning anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements in the United States, protests and revolutions in Europe and the first comprehensive coverage of war and resultant famine in Africa. The world would never be the same again.”

But the world in 1968 was merely catching up with the world of distance running.

Distance running had experienced its seismic change three years earlier, in 1965, when three young men – Ron Clarke from suburban Melbourne, Kip Keino from high up in Kenya’s Rift Valley and Michel Jazy, the son of working-class parents in France – were the vanguard of an assault that saw every world record from 1000m to the one-hour run broken, several of them repeatedly.

The first of the world records – 13:34.8 for 5000m – was set by Ron Clarke, 50 years ago to the day this Friday (16 January) in Hobart.

Clarke did not win everything in 1965, but he led the way, at start and finish. In honouring Clarke as its male athlete of the year in 1965, Track & Field News declaimed: “Nineteen hundred and sixty-five was the year of the distance runner – and Ron Clarke was the best.”

Indeed, so great was the impact of the trio that Jazy (third) and Keino (fourth) were also in the top four of the athlete of the year (AOY) voting.

Track & Field News has been voting a men’s AOY since 1959 (women’s since 1977). When high jumpers Bogdan Bondarenko and Mutaz Essa Barshim ranked second and fourth in 2014, the magazine commented: “This is one of the few times in AOY history where a No.2 ranker in an event had a season so impressive that he received recognition (in the top 10).”

Yet Clarke, Jazy and Keino were so prolific and impressive in 1965 that they went 1-3-4 in the voting. Admittedly Clarke had the 10,000m to himself, while Jazy and Keino had the 1500m and mile, but essentially the three were competing in the same events.

To have three out of the top four men in the same discipline was unprecedented then and has not been emulated since.

What made 1965 so special? Clarke’s AOY citation, written by Track & Field News’ managing editor Dick Drake, conveys some of the reasons.

“No athlete in a single year … has destroyed so exhaustively and so repeatedly so many world records,” Drake wrote. “The Australian became history’s greatest all-round distance runner from two miles through (to) the one-hour run.

“(Clarke) improved world records 11 times in eight events and bettered ratified or best-pending marks on 21 occasions.”

Clarke defined 1965, a year that re-defined distance running.

An accompanying chart noted that it had taken 11 champion athletes – Zatopek, Kuts, Schul and Pirie among them – 12 years to reduce the records from two miles to the one-hour run by the same differential Clarke had achieved in just 10 months.

Among the shattering performances of 1965 were Clarke’s 10,000m world record 27:39.4 in Oslo, his 13:25.2 5000m in Los Angeles and Keino’s 7:39.6 for 3000m in Helsingborg.

Of course, we have seen many jaw-dropping records before, most recently Usain Bolt’s 9.58 and 19.19 at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin.

What made 1965 unique was the scope and scale of the record-breaking. Three main protagonists from different countries and continents – Clarke from Australia; Keino, first of the great African champions; Jazy, reviving a dormant French tradition and flying the flag for Europe.

Then there was the time-scale. Clarke’s year-long spree started in Hobart in January and continued through New Zealand, the US west coast, Europe and back to Australia in late-October. Keino set the last of the year’s world records when he regained the 5000m mark in Auckland on the last day of November. Jazy had a purple patch in June, beginning with a world record in the mile, defeating Clarke over two miles and then beating Keino and Clarke over 5000m at the World Games in Helsinki late in the month.

That was another thing that was special about 1965: where modern athletes maximise their earning potential by limiting both the number of times they race and race each other, Clarke, Keino and Jazy raced each other repeatedly.

Clarke, in particular, raced prodigiously in 1965 – 46 times in all (a figure which misses some club performances in Melbourne).

Other record breakers were relegated to the supporting cast. Jurgen May, ranked No.1 in the 1500m ahead of Keino and Jazy, broke the world record for 1000m. Josef Odlozil set a new mark for 2000m at Zatopek’s record-breaking track Stara Boleslav.

Another East German, Siegfried Herrmann, briefly held the 3000m world record between Jazy and Keino’s efforts. Olympic 10,000m champion Billy Mills beat Gerry Lindgren over six miles at the AAU championship with both timed at a world record 27:11.6.

Clarke smashed that last time en route to his fabulous 10,000m world record in Oslo. That, in turn, came just four days after he had won a thrilling duel with Lindgren at the White City in London to set a three miles record of 12:52.4, the first sub-13-minute clocking for the event.

A journalist described Jazy’s mile world record in June as coming “like a thunderclap from Europe”. Ultimately, this sold 1965 short.

To pay homage to an artist from a different field also at his peak at the time, this was The Rolling Thunder (from Down Under) Revue, with Clarke very definitely cast as Bob Dylan.

Len Johnson for the IAAF

World records set in men’s distance events in 1965

16 January – Ron Clarke (AUS) 5000m 13:34.8, Hobart

1 February – Ron Clarke (AUS) 5000m 13:33.6, Auckland

3 March – Ron Clarke (AUS) 10 miles 47:12.8, Mentone

4 June – Ron Clarke (AUS) 3 miles 13:00.4**, Compton

4 June – Ron Clarke (AUS) 5000m 13:25.8, Compton

9 June – Michel Jazy (FRA) mile 3:53.6, Rennes

16 June – Ron Clarke (AUS) 10,000m 28:14.0+, Turku

23 June – Michel Jazy (FRA) 3000m 7:49.0*, Melun

23 June – Michel Jazy (FRA) 2 miles 8:22.6, Melun

27 June – Billy Mills (USA) / Gerry Lindgren (USA) 6 miles 27:11.6, San Diego

10 July – Ron Clarke (AUS) 3 miles 12:52.4, London

14 July – Ron Clarke (AUS) 6 miles 26:47.0***, Oslo

14 July – Ron Clarke (AUS) 10,000m 27:39.4, Oslo

20 July – Jurgen May (FRG) 1000m 2:16.2, Erfurt

21 July – Ron Hill (GBR) 25,000m 1:15:22.6, Bolton

5 August – Siegfriend Herrmann (GDR) 3000m 7:46.0, Erfurt

7 August – Gaston Roelants (BEL) 3000m steeplechase 8:26.4, Brussels

27 August – Kip Keino (KEN) 3000m 7:39.6, Helsingborg

8 September – Josef Odlozil (TCH) 2000m 5:01.2, Stara Boleslav

16 October – Tim Johnson (GBR) 30,000m 1:32:34.6, Walton on Thames

27 October – Ron Clarke (AUS) 20,000m 59:22.8, Geelong

27 October – Ron Clarke (AUS) one hour 20,232m, Geelong

30 November – Kip Keino (KEN) 5000m 13:24.2, Auckland

* en route to 2 miles
** en route to 5000m
*** en route to 10,000m
+ not ratified due to delay in obtaining permission to run